Sunday, January 10, 2016

Loose canon

I don't usually teach a lot of contemporary lit in Brit Lit II. For the last few years, it's just been this one play, and I've been teaching it alongside works from the time period when the play takes place, because that seemed to make more sense than shoving it off by itself at the end of the semester and hoping the students actually remember something about that era by the time we get to it.

But this time, there is going to be a production of the play at another local university in mid-April, about three weeks from the end of the semester, so it seemed to make sense to place it where it belonged chronologically, and then add in some more contemporary lit after that. There was another play that I used to like teaching before they took it out of the Norton Anthology, but it's too long to photocopy and I couldn't find a reasonably priced, student-friendly edition. And I couldn't really find anything else in the anthology that really grabbed me. (To be honest, most contemporary poetry and literary fiction does nothing for me. I feel like I don't get the poetry a lot of the time, and while I enjoy some novels with Serious Literary Cred, there are a lot more I don't, and most of the ones I do like aren't really suitable for a gen ed Brit Lit survey for one reason or another -- they're too long, or require too much background knowledge, or the authors aren't British even if you use the Norton Anthology's amazingly expansive definition of "British.")*

So I asked for some suggestions about novels on Facebook, read one or two of them that sounded interesting, discovered that I didn't, in fact, find them interesting at all (pretty language, not much of a plot, unsatisfying endings). And finally, I gave up and ordered a novel that I'd recently read for pleasure. I'm going to be vague here, because I'm probably the first person ever to teach this novel in the classroom and I don't want students Googling the title and discovering my blog, but it's marketed as science fiction, although it's definitely unconventional science fiction with some literary pretensions. (This is, generally, the sort of book I do enjoy -- genre fiction with some serious ideas behind it -- but it has to actually work as genre fiction. No fair writing a literary murder mystery and then never solving the mystery.**)

Almost as soon as I submitted the book order, I started second-guessing myself. Sure, it's a decent novel, with the potential to open up some interesting conversations -- what is the good life? how much can our choices change the world? But is it worth four or more days of the Brit Lit survey, when Charles Dickens only gets two and my dear, beloved, dead-too-soon Keats gets one and a half, if he's lucky? Isn't the prose rather ... pedestrian? Doesn't it feel too rushed in spots, more like a summary than a story? Is anybody even going to remember this novel in ten years? Shouldn't I be spending those few precious days of class on something that has stood the test of time? Do I even like this novel that much?

Then I realized those are pretty much exactly the questions Virginia Woolf's narrator asks about Mary Carmichael's novel toward the end of A Room of One's Own, and I decided I felt pretty good about teaching this book. Because those are the kinds of questions students should be asking and answering for themselves, and because really, this is just the sort of book Woolf says the new generation of women novelists ought to be writing -- one that illuminates those dark corners of an ordinary, seemingly unimportant woman's life. (I teach A Room of One's Own in its entirety, every single time I teach this course, despite the stupid Norton editors' decision to print only excerpts in this latest edition, and if nothing else, this novel makes a really neat follow-on to A Room of One's Own.)

So, novel taken care of. Then I realized I still had a couple of extra days of class at the end of the semester, and started scrambling frantically to find some short stories to fill those days. I read about twelve or fifteen stories, and I think I've found a couple that I like. One of them is even unimpeachably literary fiction, by someone super-famous and well-regarded. It's a weird story -- sort of magical realism, I'd say -- and I don't know how it's going to go over with the students, but I thought it was weird in a good way. The other one is by someone who's basically an author of light pop fiction, but I think it really is a pretty good story, and it's easy to read and funny. They are both about art, in their different ways. I like stories about art. I threw in some Browning poems about art earlier in the semester, so now we have a mini-theme going.

I can't get over how much thought and second-guessing went into the last few weeks of this syllabus. It's like sailing into uncharted territory. I'm not sure I have the slightest idea what makes a piece of contemporary fiction good. I don't know if any of the ones I've chosen are any good, or if I will still like them once I have to stand in front of a classroom of gen ed students suffering from end-of-April exhaustion and find something to say about them.

On to Shakespeare. Shakespeare is sooo much easier!

* As far as I can tell, the Norton editors think you are British if you are from any country that was ever colonized by the British other than the US. Nigeria, Canada, Jamaica, Australia? Come on in. Americans, on the other hand, are only considered British if they absolutely insist they are, as is the case with T.S. Eliot.

** Donna Tartt, I'm looking at you.

*** I do, pretty much, believe in teaching the traditional canon in the surveys. If you're at an obscure regional state university full of first-generation students bent on careers in physical therapy or culinary arts, you have to believe in teaching the canon. If you're at Harvard or Oberlin, you can be pretty darn sure your students will encounter Donne and Shelley and Yeats at some other point in their lives, and proceed accordingly.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I am having a similar issue in my modern women playwrights class (see today's post on my blog) regarding what's the "right" thing to do in a class. In my case, I'm teaching a 300-level, but it feels too much like a survey. Ugh. I don't know what to do, because, as you say, Shakespeare is EASY by comparison. For the women playwrights class, there are just SO MANY great writers. I want to teach them all, but I wonder if I'm doing them a disservice by doing so much -- both the writers and the students.

Anyway - I'm hoping that it works out for both of us. Good luck!!

Fretful Porpentine said...

Yeah, that's the other problem I always have with the surveys: so many good and interesting things to read, so little time to actually talk about them.